ANAHEIM – One of the things Bruce Boudreau did after taking over as Anaheim Ducks coach was have some inspirational quotes painted on the team's dressing room walls at the Honda Center. Words from Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, John Wooden, Jerry West, Vince Lombardi and Roy Williams are now there to be viewed by players on a daily basis.
Does Boudreau have a favourite saying?
"No, I think they're all good. I think they're all inspirational and the whole goal of those quotes was, quite frankly, who wrote them," he explained. "It wasn't some normal guy. These guys were champions and they talked about hard work and they were willing to do the hard work and that's how they became champions."
Winning has not come easy to Boudreau in the NHL playoffs. His teams have won six division titles and posted a .663 winning percentage in 517 regular-season games, but never advanced past the second round of the post-season. His record in the playoffs as a NHL head coach is 27-28 entering Wednesday night's Game 6 showdown with the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center.
On Tuesday, the 59-year-old bench boss was asked what's the biggest challenge he faces coaching at this time of year.
"Winning," he responded immediately. "The competition is so picked up from the regular season. You watch the pre-season and you go, 'Wow, this is a really good game,' and then the regular season goes on and you go, 'How can it get any tougher than this?' The playoffs come and you think the regular season is a piece of cake compared to what you're going through here.
"It's knowing when to practise hard and when not to practise hard, when to make it easy and just keep building them up. Usually you're saying the same message so they've heard the same message for eight months so you don't want them to get tired of it."
The message may be the same, but Boudreau has made a number of changes that have helped turned the tide in his team's second round series against the Kings.
"He's a coach who isn't afraid to make moves in terms of personnel," said Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano. "He's not a coach that gets set in his ways in terms of the lineup or guys playing in certain positions. He has confidence in guys and he's good with the players in terms of giving them confidence. If he's going to move guys around, he's good at communicating with guys about that. He's a coach that makes adjustments to other teams."
After the Ducks lost the first two games of the series, Boudreau called up defenceman Sami Vatanen from the American Hockey League and played him 20 minutes a night, including on the power play. The Ducks have scored four man-advantage goals in the three games since the Finn was recalled from Norfolk. In general, Vatanen has given the Ducks blue line a different dimension and helped them move the puck more easily against the notoriously stingy Kings.
But the adjustments didn't end with Vatanen.
In Game 4, Boudreau made the bold decision to start 20-year-old John Gibson, a goalie with zero NHL playoff experience and only three games of regular season experience, over veteran Jonas Hiller, who had won Game 3 in relief of the injured Frederik Andersen. Gibson posted a 28-save shutout in his debut and followed that up with a steady 39-save win on Monday night.
After first-line winger Matt Beleskey went down with an injury, Boudreau elevated 21-year-old Devante Smith-Pelly, who had generated some quality chances, but failed to register a point in the series through three games, to the top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Smith-Pelly has since scored three goals and fired eight shots on net over the last two outings.
"I think two things come to mind," said Ducks defenceman Ben Lovejoy when asked what makes Boudreau a good coach. "Just the confidence he gives his players. I know when I first came here that was just eyeopening for me. He puts players in a position where they can be successful and more often than not, playing for him, they are."
Lovejoy was traded by the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Ducks for a fifth-round pick during the 2012-13 season. Under Boudreau, he has moved into a top pairing role alongside Cam Fowler.
"Then there's his ability to roll four lines and three sets of D," Lovejoy continued. "I think that when you're a defenceman playing nine to 12 minutes a night, you get out there to not make a mistake. It's impossible to have a tight gap when you don't play a lot so we roll four lines, we roll three sets of D and I really think that helps. And, I think, come crunch time, Getzlaf and Perry haven't played 26 minutes. They're fresh. They're ready to go and to carry the rest of the team when the time comes."
And while Boudreau is easy for players to like, he is not afraid of making tough calls. In the first round of this year's playoffs, Boudreau benched beloved future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne in Game 4 against the Dallas Stars. It was move that, considering Selanne's stature in the game and the dressing room, could have backfired. Instead, the move seemed to spark Selanne, who has two goals against the Kings and picked up an assist in the Game 5 win.
"He cares," said Getzlaf, the Ducks captain. "That's the biggest thing with him. He cares about each of us individually and that makes you want to play harder for him."
But the knock against Boudreau has been that he can't get it done in the post-season. Boudreau's Washington Capitals came close to making the conference finals in 2009, pushing the Penguins to Game 7 before ultimately being blown out in the decisive game.
"Well, the difference last time was we were down 3-2 going into Game 6 in Pittsburgh and had to win and we did," Boudreau said. "This time, we're up 3-2 so I keep telling my wife, 'It's a different circumstance,' so hopefully a different result.
"As you go on, the steps get harder and harder and harder and the one thing I have learned in a very brief time is that when they talk about the Cup being the hardest thing to win [they're right]. I mean, we're not even halfway there and [we're] realizing how tough it is. This is a heck of a journey you have to make and, again, [you're] trying to keep it fresh, because we're not even out of the second round."
Last year, the Ducks squandered a 3-2 first-round series lead against the underdog Detroit Red Wings before losing Game 7 on home ice. Getzlaf has noticed that Boudreau has made a subtle change in his approach.
"He's evolved," Getzlaf explained. "He's done a great job in calming himself down. Bruce tends to get a little wound up at times, emotional in the game and that's good at times."
And while Boudreau has managed his emotions better, he is still the same fun-loving guy, who always seems willing to talk hockey with reporters long after the formal media session ends.
"I get asked this question a lot and I maintain that you're not going to tell quirky stories about your boss on camera so I'm not going to tell them about mine," Lovejoy said with a laugh. "I've loved playing for Bruce. I think everybody in the locker room does too, but you can ask somebody else for those stories."
"At the end of the day, Bruce is a players coach," Cogliano said. "A coach you can approach, talk to and he's up front with you and I think that's why a lot of guys like him."